Catherine Russell – Harlem On My Mind
(Jazz Village JV579004, CD Review by Peter Vacher)
The New York-based vocalist and Grammy winner Catherine Russell comes with the kind of genetic heritage that gets jazz historians excited. She’s the daughter of pianist Luis Russell, for many years the bandleader for Louis Armstrong, and Carline Ray, the bassist and a distinguished educator who came to fame with the International Sweethearts of Rhythm. Happily for those who care little about her history, she has an alluring voice, with an inbuilt sense of swing and a proper jazz sensibility. She’s the real deal, as they say.
For this 2015 recording, her sixth outing for the label, she’s chosen to revisit classic songs from Harlem’s heyday associated with such great names as Ethel Waters, Billie Holiday and Bessie Smith, The title track, a neat swinger by Irving Berlin, takes the song on a relaxed journey, Mark Shane’s fluent piano accompaniment just right, and feels good straightaway. I Can’t Believe You’re in Love With Me brings her full band into play, this like a perfect calling-card for the Big Apple’s mainstream elite, with Dan Block’s clarinet featured, and neat backing riffs showcasing Russell’s sturdy swing feeling. Naturally enough, Swing, Brother, Swing does just that, Russell urgent and direct, the bandsmen’s solos including a glistening interlude by trombonist John Allred and muted trumpet from the mighty Jon-Erik Kellso. This is romping music, Russell exuding joy. No wonder the Wall Street Journal called her ‘The best blues and jazz singer going today’.
There’s further support for that verdict with her stately version of The Very Thought of You before she essays Smith’s You Got The Wrong Key with suitable brio. Her version of Henry Nemo’s less familiar Don’t Take Your Love From Me is calmer, with the 100-year old Fred Staton’s grainy tenor in the spotlight. Thereafter there are gems all the way through, like Fats Waller’s sublime Blue Turning Grey Over You with more sparkling Shane piano in stride style, and good guitar from Russell’s MD Matt Munisteri.
She can be lusty when appropriate but stays well away from self-conscious parody or period ricky-tick in this fine programme, the arrangements [and solos] neatly fashioned and appropriate. Russell is blessed with perfect intonation, vocal warmth and a natural inclination to give these time-honoured lyrics their proper due. Old-fashioned values maybe, but in a good way. Miss Russell should tour here. Soon.